“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

James M. Barrie

This is a Christmas story about a place in a time long ago, a place without snow or cold, but where Christmas is celebrated just like here.

It’s about the famous Martindale’s Book Store on Little Santa Monica in Beverly Hills. It’s a story full of names, famous names out of the past, some you will recognize if you’re old enough, others you won’t. But I knew all of them, and I want you to remember them this Christmas.

This is my Christmas card to the long dead whom I didst love.

Christmas week 1967, Beverly Hills, Calif.: The Saturday before Christmas was a maelstrom of paper and ribbons, cigar smoke and candied chestnuts. That day I wrapped five books for actor Joseph Cotton and shared a few laughs and stories with him. Katharine Hepburn brought back six of the 15 books she and I had picked out for Spencer Tracy who was ill. Spencer didn’t like English mysteries.

Rock Hudson came in that week and took me aside. In a whisper, he asked me not to let anyone charge books on his account, particularly the young blond man who had been his house guest and was no longer aboard.

Fred Astaire had been in early that morning as usual. He always got there each morning when I opened the doors. After lunch, actors William Holden and Glenn Ford stood in front of the store, as many did, smoking cigars for 15 minutes while having an animated conversation.

A few nights earlier, after I had locked up and was replacing tree lights in the window, a familiar face rapped on the glass and smiled. Standing just behind her were Orson Welles and actor Albert Dekker, both smoking huge cigars.

“Are you really closed?” Olivia asked.

Olivia de Havilland was talking to me, and the legendary Welles stood smiling mischievously at me through a cloud of cigar smoke.

“Of course not,” I said and opened up. She was carrying a box of expensive chocolates Orson had given her, and while he perused the rack of girlie magazines we kept behind the counter, Olivia and I sat on the front counter, our legs dangling in air, sharing Orson’s chocolates. Before they left, Orson bought three two hundred dollar art books.

Olivia ordered a book and said she’d come back for it before Christmas. She didn’t.

Martindale’s was, at the time, a kind of mecca for the readers of Beverly Hills, from the waiters at Chasen’s Restaurant, to Edward G. Robinson, who came each week to buy the latest art books.

Everyone came to Walter Martindale’s, where they had charge accounts and privacy. They knew their privacy was respected at Martindale’s. When a famous star arranged to have a $500 art book sent to a “lady friend” in the San Fernando Valley, it was done and sealed as if it had never happened. When I became Walter’s assistant, I had my instructions, my rules. They were sacrosanct. One task was to keep an eye on a famous movie composer who was known to shoplift a book or two.

It was a great job for a young actor. When I needed time off for an acting job or audition, Walter let me go.

For three Christmases, I floated amidst the stars I had grown up with, and it wasn’t until I came to Waterville years later that I realized how much all of those luminaries were just like all of you here. Beverly Hills then was smaller that Waterville. Fabulously wealthy? Yes. Famous with expensive cars and fabulous homes? Certainly, but with arthritis, heart issues, troubled children, good and bad marriages, bad feet and some, as I came to know them, with terminal illnesses they kept well hidden.

On Christmas when they were in town, they came down from their big houses to the shops, to Martindale’s, and shared memories. Stars who had started together, struggling up from nowhere, now hugged, laughed and cried in reunion.

Star Joseph Cotton had brought his Christmas memories from his home in Petersburg, Va., Bill Holden remembered being little Billy Beedle in the snows of O’Fallon, Ill., Orson Welles had come from the yuletides of Kenosha, Wis. I heard Fred Astaire, the dance magician, remembering his first toys in Omaha, Neb.

Writer Ray Bradbury, who became my mentor and close friend, remembered dragging his Christmas tree home 16 blocks in the snow in Waukegan, Ill.

Eventually, stars like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon replaced the old, but they too, like Walter Martindale himself, have passed away. The shop, indeed that entire block, is gone.

Only Olivia is still alive in her 90s in Paris. Thank you all for the memories, and thanks, Olivia, for the chocolates. Merry Christmas.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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